(As we have outlined in past forum posts, and as was helpfully explained by philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, the Western tradition in art involves two complementary modes: the aesthetic of the Beautiful and the aesthetic of the Sublime. Given that the Beauty aesthetic is quintessentially feminine, while the Sublime aesthetic is quintessentially masculine, this site inevitably focusses on the Beautiful. Every once in a while, however, we venture off topic and explore a theme that relates to the aesthetic of the Sublime. This is one of those instances.)
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When it comes to television programs in English that cover the history of Western culture, the definitive magnum opus is still Kenneth Clark's seminal 13-part documentary Civilisation. Produced by the BBC in 1969, it is a magisterial yet accessible survey of the music, literature, architecture, and visual art of the Occidental tradition. Anyone watching it will acquire a sense of the "spine" of European culture, on which basis on which they can build a deeper understanding of their Old World heritage.
Clark is an affable host, learnèd yet modest, an exemplar of the Oxbridge scholars (Tolkien among them) who, for generations, brought English learning to the furthest outposts of the Empire. University students in Britain and the colonies would have studied with these grand old men until as late as the 1990s, at which time the last of their number retired, swept away by the baby-boomer crowd of Leftists who imposed the toxic regime of Cultural Marxism in the Academy, especially in the humanities.
If Kenneth Clark had any weakness as a scholar, though, it was that he was not a Romantic--a shortcoming that he shared with the majority of his Oxbridge kin, such as C.S. Lewis and F.R. Leavis. To his credit, Clark had a better understanding of Lord Byron's cultural importance than most scholars of his generation, but since Civilisation is not a Romantic work (though a noble one), Clark's episodes dealing with Romanticism are somewhat inadequate, especially considering the fact that the Romantic Era represents the pinnacle of art, music, and literature.
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Given this one blind spot in Civilisation's otherwise omniscient perspective, we must turn elsewhere for a television program that does justice to the greatness of Romanticism. And we find it in an exciting 1982 documentary titled The Romantic Spirit.
Viewers of the A&E Network in the 1980s--a time when the "arts" portion of its "Art and Entertainment" acronym was still justified--will remember The Romantic Spirit as a series that the channel aired from A&E's debut in 1984 until 1991.
Unlike virtually every other program that A&E ever broadcast, however, The Romantic Spirit was never released on video in any form: not VHS, not Laserdisc, not DVD. Nor was it ever made commercially available in its country of origin, Britain.
For decades, fans of the series went to exorbitant lengths to track it down. Letters to A&E elicited unhelpful responses stating that the network no longer owned the rights. Messages to the U.K. company that had produced the documentary went unanswered.
But now, at last, just when it seemed that lovers of Romanticism would never again see this unique program in their lifetimes, the complete series has finally made it to DVD.
Alas, it is very much an "unofficial" release, with the DVDs issued by an independent outfit that clearly mastered the discs from old VCR recordings, which show over 20 years' worth of wear, to say nothing of dismal original recording quality.
Such shortcomings are easily overlooked, however, when one realizes that now, at last, by a small miracle, The Romantic Spirit can once again by viewed and admired by all.
The series is thrilling and compelling--a truly Romantic take on Romanticism; perhaps the only such interpretation ever filmed. The cinematography could be credited to Caspar David Friedrich, for many of the episodes comprise scenes which dramatize, in real life, his most evocative spiritual-landscape paintings.
The Romantic Spirit is not without its flaws. As the series was devised by a French scholar, it is exceedingly Franco-centric. Also, as the 14 installments were created by different directors, the intellectual quality varies considerably from episode to episode. Most unforgivably, the final episode (#14) is an unwatchable affront, an attempt to link Romanticism with Bolshevism, whereas the two are opposites: Romanticism being hierarchical, individualist, and idealist (three qualities that lead to great culture) whereas Marxism is levelling, collectivist, and materialist (three qualities that destroy culture).
However, even with those caveats, this is indisputably the most Romantic television series ever filmed, one that gives viewers a fine introduction to the spirit of the age.
The following YouTube video comprises the complete first episode in the series, titled "The Romantic Explosion."